Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 6, 1882

This Day in Labor History: May 6, 1882


On May 6, 1882, President Chester Alan Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although not often seen by the general public as part of our labor history, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory for organized labor in this country. It generated out of the discontent of white labor in the American West toward Chinese competition in general and specifically out of the Workingmen’s Party, a political organization of California’s white working class that threatened to overthrow the state’s two-party system if its major concern was not addressed.

It is useful to think of Chinese exclusion in the context of Gilded Age capital and labor. With capital so overwhelming labor and the free labor ideology of whites controlling their own future through hard work, white labor looked for any solution to the crisis. Generally, they hoped for a single, simple solution that they could grasp onto. That might be Henry George’s Single Tax, the monetaization of silver, the ideas of Edward Bellamy, the 8-hour day, or Chinese exclusion. Workers might swing from one idea to the next, looking for a panacea to industrial capitalism that allowed them to retake control over their own lives. Why Chinese exclusion? The idea of a white man’s republic seemed under threat from racialized labor who would seem to take any job at any price, driving down wages for white men, channeling profits into the capitalists’ arms, and undermining the ability of white men to control their own lives. Eliminate the Chinese and you go a long ways to resetting the balance of power between labor and capital.

When whites moved to California in the late 1840s, most saw it is as a white man’s country. This meant that any job done by a non-white was stealing a job from a white person. When they flowed across the nation during the Gold Rush, they assumed the gold was there for the taking, without competition. Lo and behold, news of the gold had traveled around the world. Native Americans were already there. Miners streamed northward from Mexico, Peru, and Chile. They came from France and Germany. They traveled across the Pacific from Hawaii, Australia, and especially China. While the Australians and Germans and most other Europeans were acceptable to the miners, the non-whites and the French were not. Mexicans and Chinese found their claims stolen, the French (who were seen on the same level as Mexicans) were made unwelcome. Most of the competitors went back home by the early 1850s in the face of American white supremacy.

There was one caveat for this. California was a nearly all-male space. Miners were totally out of sorts because there were no women to clean and cook for them. It really affected them profoundly, as one can see if you read their diaries. Mostly, they lived in filth. But over time, the Chinese were feminized to take over the jobs the whites did not want. This is the origin of the Chinese restaurant and Chinese laundry. Although gender ratios slowly equalized, the Chinese had developed strong communities in California cities. The Chinese also became the cheap labor of choice for industrialists looking to build railroad with inhumane working conditions that most whites would not accept.

Chinese-American children, late 19th century

So-called “anticoolie clubs” became common among whites resentful of Chinese labor. For example, in 1867, a group of white San Franciscans in an anticoolie club drove a gang of Chinese laborers from their railroad work. These ethnic-based clubs were not so different from the Protestant-supremacist riots of pre-Civil War New England against the Irish. These clubs engaged in a boycott of Chinese-made goods beginning in 1859. They also became connected to the burgeoning trade union movement in California. But unionism had a very difficult time getting established in California and the anti-coolie organizations helped fill that working-class vacuum.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Chinese question came to dominate California politics. Into this debate came the Workingmen’s Party. Began among German immigrants in the east in 1876 as a sort of socialist big tent party, in California, the leadership of Denis Kearney turned it into a 1-platform political movement: kick out the Chinese. Kearney, an Irish immigrant, arrived in San Francisco in 1873 and immediately became involved in politics. Combining fervent anti-Chinese hate with violent threats against his political opponents, Kearney took over the Workingmen’s Party to unite white working-class and anti-Chinese politics. At the 1879 California Constitutional Convention, Kearney and his supporters inserted a variety of anti-Chinese laws into the document. The most important of the clauses in the new constitution banned the employment of the Chinese. But business leaders opposed all of this and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned these provisions.

Anti-Chinese image

For Kearney and his followers, eliminating the Chinese was just the first step in retaking control of the republic for the working man. Once the Chinese question was settled, Kearney wanted to go after the capitalists. Said Kearney,

”When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces. In six months we will have 50,000 mean ready to go out. . . and if ‘John’ [the Chinese] don’t leave here, we will drive him and his aborts [sic] into the sea… We are ready to do it… If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet.”

Although primarily a California movement, by the late 1870s, the anti-Chinese fears began to spread among whites throughout the nation, despite the fact that outside of New York City and western mining towns, the Chinese population was near zero. In 1876, both parties adapted anti-Chinese planks to their party platforms. Kearney took an eastern tour in 1878, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Boston and campaigning with future Greenback Party presidential candidate Benjamin Butler, although his national star faded quickly, in part because of his anti-capitalist views, and he returned to San Francisco without the national popularity he craved. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Among its provisions was to bar the Chinese from citizenship and required each Chinese to acquire a certificate of residence or face deportation. In 1902, the Geary Act made the Chinese Exclusion Act permanent, as opposed to the 10-year extensions mandated in the original law.

Workingmen’s Party poster

Organized labor strongly supported most laws to end Chinese immigration. The Knights of Labor were strongly anti-Chinese and banned Asians from the organization. A group of Knights in Tacoma, Washington spearheaded anti-Chinese violence in Tacoma, Washington in 1885. The American Federation of Labor began in 1886, after Chinese Exclusion, but AFL head Samuel Gompers supported the extension of the law, as well as other anti-immigration legislation through the 1920s.

The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was hardly the end of violence against Chinese labor, as the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming would find out in 1885. But it was the effective end of the Workingman’s Party and the end of anti-Chinese groups threatening the established political system.

Kearney’s star faded rapidly after the Chinese Exclusion Act. He died in obscurity in 1907.

Legal Chinese immigration effectively stopped until 1943, when the nation’s wartime alliance with China made exclusion politically untenable and when anti-Japanese sentiment put the Chinese in a new light for many Americans. However, with exclusion, the Chinese began to migrate to northern Mexico and British Columbia and crossing into the United States, forcing the U.S. to create the Border Patrol.

This is the 59th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Fighting Words

    Well, in San Francisco, there is a Kearny Street that borders Chinatown.

    • Yes, but it is named after Stephen Kearny from the Mexican War.

      • rea

        Note Denis Kearney had an extra “e”.

        • Fighting Words

          I did note the spelling difference, although it would be funny to have this bit of historical irony (especially since my favorite Chinese restaurant is on Kearny). But Eric’s post has both a Kearney and a Geary, which are both prominent streets in San Francisco. And yes, Kearney is spelled differently, and Geary Street/Boulevard is named after John W. Geary, the first Mayor of San Francisco and not Thomas J. Geary who wrote the Geary Act.

          I just have streets on the brain.

          • firefall

            better than the other way around – brains on the street

  • Looking forward to the book.

    It is interesting to see that the Real American’s response to the sight of non-Americans (or people who aren’t sufficiently American) at work is one of hostility, even when the economy isn’t terrible.

    I’ve always understood that when there is severe economic pressure you get an increase in race-based violence because jobs that are usually viewed as not suitable for whites become desirable. Looks like the threat of violence is always there, so perhaps the only difference is how and how often it is expressed.

    Also interesting to see anti-French sentiment has deep and noble roots. Wow. Do you think it was religion based? (Catholicism v. Protestantism.)

    • The French stuff was mostly religion based. Anglo-Americans noticed with suspicion that the French seemed to hang out with the Mexicans more than other Europeans. I’m away right now, so I don’t have the relevant material around to look up the French issue in more detail, but that’s the general gist.

      The economy was pretty bad in 1886, but when the Workingmen’s Party got going in the late 1870s, the economy was improving. In any case, there was plenty of room for racialized violence regardless of the state of the economy.

      • Makes sense. The history and impact of anti-RCC sentiment in the U.S. is very interesting, if you can hold your breath long enough to ignore the stench coming off the Church.

        In any case, there was plenty of room for racialized violence regardless of the state of the economy.

        I suppose that if things had become bad enough the restaurants and laundries would have been ripe for takeover.

        Sorry, beliefs of the dominant class about of ownership, especially intangibles (jobs) is really interesting and can often serve as a distant warning of where trouble is going to rear its head.

    • It is not unique to Americans. Racially distinct diasporas have faced discrimination in just about every country they have appeared. This includes the Chinese in South East Asia, Latin America (look up the history of coolie labor in Cuba and Peru), South Africa, and Australia (not just the US), Indians in South Africa and East Africa, and Lebanese and Syrians in West Africa. Indeed racial violence against Chinese immigrant communities has occurred often at the hands or with the encouragement of the state in Russia, the USSR (socialism seems to have failed to eliminate racism), Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other a variety of other places. Reading blogs like this one I get the impression that US academics think that racial discrimination and violence is a near US monopoly. It is not.

      • Linnaeus

        Reading blogs like this one I get the impression that US academics think that racial discrimination and violence is a near US monopoly.

        Erik is an Americanist, so it makes sense that he would focus on the United States. He doesn’t make the claim in this post, or any others of his that I can recall, that racial discrimination and violence is a near-US monopoly.

        • True he does not make the claim. But, being as Leftists are supposed to be internationalists and reject national chauvanism there is an inordinate focus on the evils of US racism on this blog in comparison to the rest of the world. In the case of diaspora group like the Chinese talking about discrimination in only one of the countries they settled gives a very partial picture. Anti-Sinicism was like anti-Semitism pretty universal and for many of the same reasons. It is not as if the evil US discriminated against and then excluded Chinese while the good and progressive Australians, Russians, Latin Americans, and Europeans welcomed them with open arms and gave them full and equal citizenship rights. Indeed given what happened to the Chinese in the USSR in 1937-1938 and in Vietnam in 1978-1979 the US capitalists appear to be far less racist against ethnic Chinese than Soviet style socialists.

          • Hogan

            Being a political internationalist and an academic specialist are not actually inconsistent.

            • The Dark Avenger

              One could infer from J. Otto’s omission of China’s lack of anti-Semitism at any point in its’ history something dark and vile.

              Just give me a little time and I’ll come up with that something.

              • We could probably infer that racism takes different forms and targets in different countries. So while racism exists in China (see the works of Frank Dikotter for its history) it has not taken the form of anti-Semitism. Although interestingly there have been works about Jewish conspiracies published in Japan.

                • The Dark Avenger

                  Actually, the Chinese have had interactions with Jewish populations for a long time, and therefore have had no reason to develop a prejudice against them:

                  There is an oral tradition that the first Jews immigrated to China through Persia following the Roman Emperor Titus’s capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE. A large number of Jews emigrated from Persia during the reign of Emperor Ming of Han (58-75 CE).[9] Writing in 1900, Father Joseph Brucker hypothesized that Jews came to China from India by a sea route during the Song dynasty between 960 and 1126.

                  Three steles with inscriptions found at Kaifeng bear some historical suggestions. The oldest, dating from 1489, commemorates the construction of a synagogue (1163) (bearing the name Qīngzhēn Sì, a term often used for mosque in Chinese), states the Jews entered China from India in the Later Han Dynasty (25–220 CE), the Jews’ 70 Chinese surnames, their audience with an “un-named” Song Dynasty Emperor, and finally lists the transmission of their religion from Abraham down to the prophet Ezra. The second table, dated 1512 (found in the synagogue Xuanzhang Daojing Si) details the Jews’ religious practices. The third is dated 1663 and commemorates the re-rebuilding of the Qingzhen si synagogue and recaps the information from the other two steles.[7]

                  Father Joseph Brucker believed Matteo Ricci’s manuscripts indicate there were only approximately ten or twelve Jewish families in Kaifeng in the late 16th and early 17th century, and that they had reportedly resided there for five or six hundred years. It was also stated in the manuscripts that there was a greater number of Jews in Hangzhou. This could be taken to suggest that loyal Jews fled south along with the soon-to-be crowned Emperor Gaozong to Hangzhou. In fact, the 1489 stele mentions how the Jews “abandoned Bianliang” (Kaifeng) after the Jingkang Incident.


      • Wait, people are dicks to other people in other parts of the world? Gosh, I’m so glad you told us that.

        I suppose if one ignores the fact that he is discussing the state of play in a specific place (California, which despite right wing jokes to the contrary, is in America), one would get the impression that American academics or at least this one, aren’t aware that racists exist elsewhere on the planet or that they all seem happy when they’ve got blood splashed up to the elbows. However, it seems a lot of effort for so little return.

        Now we need someone to levy accusations of spreading anti-American sentiment because Loomis doesn’t specifically discuss racial discrimination around the globe and … I guess one that calls him a racist for bringing up the anti-Chinese sentiment in the first place?

        I’ll start making pancakes.

      • Bexley

        See, this was an interesting comment but you just couldn’t resist adding those last two sentences of pure unadulterated JOPness.

      • witless chum

        Reading blogs like this one I get the impression that US academics think that racial discrimination and violence is a near US monopoly. It is not.

        Translated, this means.

        Reading blogs like this one I figure they mostly confirm my prejudices so I read in things that aren’t there.

        • Bexley

          In JOP’s mind this blog is actually Lawyers Ghana and Money.

          • Western Dave


  • Stag Party Palin

    Kearney, an Irish immigrant, arrived in San Francisco in 1873

    Olson Johnson: All right… we’ll give some land to the niggers and the chinks. But we don’t want the Irish!

    Fucking humans – how do they work?

    • Karen

      That was the very first thing I thought of after reading this post. When he was good, Mel Brooks was brilliant. Too bad he read all his press releases.

      • The Dark Avenger

        It could’ve been Richard Pryor who wrote that dialog, just like he wrote the flashback scene with Brooks playing an Indian chief who spoke Yiddish/was Jewish.

  • Airborne Simian

    Thanks, Erik, for highlighting the racist origins of Unions in this country. Racism and organized labor often go hand-in-hand, think of all the scare mongering today about ‘our’ jobs going to China. It’s disgusting.

    • Think also of organized labor leading the way on immigration reform in the present.

      • Anonymous


        • Malaclypse

          A cogent, concise argument. Unrebutrable, even.

          • Malaclypse

            Unrebuttable, as well, even.

          • firefall


      • That’s a very new phenomenon born out of desperation. Unions are traditionally exclusionary. Indeed, they basically are required to be, because they owe fiduciary duties to their members to protect their jobs.

        That doesn’t make them bad overall, but saying “well NOW they are finally less racist” misses the point.

    • Malaclypse
    • sharculese

      Do you feel guilty about the fact that you can’t digest history until it’s pounded into a tepid, soundbite-laden glurge, or should I assume that state of being requires your self-awareness not to have developed to the point where you can feel shame.

      • witless chum

        There’s no shame there. There’s no way that guy thinks anti-immigrant sentiment is a bad thing when someone on his side does it. He’ll just say whatever because what else is he gonna say?

        • bexley

          When the wingers spout anti-immigrant nonsense it they are merely trafficking in an old theory that was perfectly within the bounds of acceptable discourse not that long ago. These guys were some of the originators of the theory and are the only ones culpable.

    • firefall

      racism goes hand-in-hand with *everything* in nineteenth century America, it was pretty much the defining attribute of that time and place.

  • Data Tutashkhia

    As usual, racist sentiment is just a symptom of one or another socioeconomic phenomenon. Superficial and transient symptom.

    The Capitalist wants cheap immigrant labor, to deprive the domestic workers of their bargaining power; the Union resists. That is what the unions are for.

    • Eyeroll.

      • witless chum

        If all you have is a kazoo, every problem looks like a whatever the fuck a kazoo is good for.

        • firefall

          or in this case, a wazoo

      • Data Tutashkhia

        Eyeroll back at you.

        What’s the story with your race-bating, under the cute title ‘day in labor history’? What’s your problem? Are you being paid for this or are you just genuinely stupid?

        • Data Tutashkhia

          Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s early in the morning here; I got annoyed. Please delete that comment.

          • The Dark Avenger

            Please repeat for all Data’s comments.

    • Malaclypse

      This is why there were no ethnic problems in the USSR.

      • Hogan

        It’s funny how Data and Otto never engage each other. It seems like Data is the very embodiment of everything Otto professes to loathe, and vice versa, but we just can’t seem to get those crazy kids together.

        • Bill Murray

          but the resulting explosion would destroy LGM and all related blogs

          • Malaclypse

            And will blast us all into a universe where Loomis writes for American Thinker about the moocher class.

        • Because I already had my fill of his comments on my own blog. I didn’t ban him, but I did request he identify himself by his real name. I have found that generally reduces my comments down to zero.

          • Data is Otto’s troll

            …That’s so awesome I don’t know what else to say!

  • latinist

    What were the politics of this like on the Chinese side? That is, were the Chinese just totally excluded from US political influences, or did they have their own parties, movements, etc? And was there any significant anti-racist violence in response to the anti-Chinese riots and such?

    • latinist

      Meant to add: I love this series, and have learned a ton from it. Thanks!

      • stickler

        The Chinese communities were generally organized around their benevolent committees like the “Five Companies” in San Francisco. These organizations found work and housing for Chinese immigrants and often cooperated with local government and law enforcement. In 1876 they made a big donation to the Centennial celebrations in SF (the biggest one, I believe). They tried to present the Chinese population as hard-working and loyal, though in the face of considerable hostility. The reality was, the Chinese population was too small to be politically useful for Western politicians, and very few of them had the right or the desire to vote, so their political views weren’t relevant most of the time. There was also the problem that most “Chinese” people thought of themselves not as Chinese, but had regional identities — Cantonese, etc., so solidarity was made even more problematic. Many, if not most, of the Chinese immigrants saw themselves as only temporary residents of the USA and planned to return to China after making enough money here to set themselves up in their home village.

        (Not unlike Andrew Carnegie, who in middle age returned to Scotland and set his mother up in the village manse.)

    • wjts

      From what I remember (and I’m only talking about California here), the Chinese population remained pretty much entirely disenfranchised well into the 20th century.

      • The Dark Avenger

        Even after the 1943 Act, for someone of Chinese blood to become a citizen, a special bill had to be passed, as was the case with my grandmother and her sister in the late 40s/early 50s. No citizenship, no vote.

        This wasn’t fixed until 1965.

        However, with exclusion, the Chinese began to migrate to northern Mexico and British Columbia and crossing into the United States, forcing the U.S. to create the Border Patrol.

        One of my other great-aunts was smuggled across the eastern border of Canada in the 1940s by her American husband, and was afraid of getting caught for years and years. She ended up being considered an American citizen despite a lack of the correct documents in her case.

        I once committed a faux pas at a family function by giving her chopsticks, she never used such utensils she was afraid it would give her original country of birth away.

        • wjts

          That’s more or less what I thought I remembered.

          • The Dark Avenger

            Your memory is correct on that point.

    • Western Dave

      Republican politicians back East tended to demand that Western Democrats stop beating on the Chinese. They did this by feminizing the Chinese and making the Irish look like beasts as in this Nast cartoon.

  • Karen

    I find it rather ill that anti-immigration advocates are often immigrants themselves. Peter Brimelow, and I will never link to his website, is the current iteration. I really wonder how these people manage to live with themselves. The logs in their eyes are all sequoias.

    • witless chum

      Some people are just plain not great at conceiving how others are just as human as they are and deserve similar treatment. Nobody will come out and say their against equal rights for all, but there’s a whole lot of people who do not believe it at all in practice.

    • I think with Brimelow it’s just a perfectly internally consistent racism.

  • I’ve said it before, but it merits repeating:

    These posts are awesome, Loomis.

    • firefall

      +59 and counting

      • Bruce Vail

        I agree.

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